Ole Miss overcame a 14-point second-half deficit to defeat Missouri in the first round of the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., last March. Millinghaus capped the comeback with a last-second floater in the lane that proved to be the decider, and the Rebels ultimately closed a memorable weekend cutting down the nets as tournament champions.
They followed with their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade.
“It made his coach happy, I tell you that,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy says now, his team set to open the 2013-14 season tonight against Troy at 7:30 p.m. “It was a big shot for him. Not only that, but the way he played in the last four minutes.”
Somewhat lost in the win and the mystique of the final shot was how Ole Miss, on the brink of elimination not just from the SEC tournament but NCAA tournament consideration as well, actually got to that point.
Millinghaus was primarily responsible.
He had played all of four minutes in the first half of the game. No matter. With his team needing an offensive spark, an infusion of energy, Kennedy turned to Millinghaus, a diminutive point guard who is generously listed at 5-foot-10 in the Ole Miss media guide.
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Millinghaus responded with nine points in the final six minutes. He matched All-SEC guard Phil Pressey, now with the Boston Celtics, shot for shot. When Pressey hit a 3 with 46.2 seconds left to give the Tigers a 62-59 lead, Millinghaus answered with his own 3-pointer 17 seconds later.
The floater he’ll likely tell his grandkids about someday soon followed.
“(The shot) just gave me a bunch of confidence and respect from my teammates to know that I’m capable of making plays,” Millinghaus said.
Millinghaus never grows tired of watching film of the game. He said the shot helped cement his status as a leader in the locker room. It also gave him confidence to take on a bigger role in this, his sophomore season.
Gone are Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, two of the more accomplished players in Ole Miss history. Holloway finished his career as the school’s all-time leading rebounder. Buckner tops the Ole Miss charts in blocked shots.
Star guard Marshall Henderson, the team’s only senior, will miss three games due to his total conduct last season, SEC and NCAA tournaments, and his behavior since the end of the season.
Despite his youth, Kennedy considers Millinghaus a veteran. He’s been through the wars. He’s faced the pressure of close games. Like, say, a do-or-die contest in March with a shot at the Big Dance on the line.
And he’s come through.
“Derrick has made a big transformation from year one to year two,” Kennedy said. “He’s much stronger with the ball, in my opinion. We’re trying to get him to play fast. He’s typically going to be the smallest guy on the floor, so if you’re the smallest guy on the floor, you’ve got to play lower than most and you’ve got to play faster than most, because you’ve got to create space. I think he’s done a good job with that day-in and day-out.”
“I’m the smallest guy, but when I’m on the court, I don’t feel like I’m the smallest guy,” Millinghaus said. “But I do feel like I’ve got to do extra to stand out.”
Kennedy has a history of developing undersized point guards. He had Chris Warren at Ole Miss. Warren ranks third at Ole Miss all-time in career points, and he is one of only four players in SEC history to reach 2,000 points and 400 assists.
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Kennedy also coached Devan Downey at Cincinnati. Downey excelled under Kennedy before transferring to South Carolina, where he became an honorable mention All-American and first team All-SEC selection in 2008-09.
In the spring of 2012, with his team fresh off a 20-14 record and offensively challenged, Kennedy went to the well again; this time, to Millinghaus, who in one season at Queen City (N.C.) Prep averaged 28 points per game and shot 43 percent from 3.
“I knew we needed speed with the ball,” Kennedy said. “The thing that attracted me to him was he was a little bit older, and he had the ability to create off the bounce. Fast in the open floor, could knock down open shots.
“He reminded me a lot of a combination of two guys I’ve had in the past. One being Chris Warren, the obvious, because of his ability to make perimeter shots. The other is he had a little Devan Downey in him with his ability to get up and down the floor. All of those things, coupled with we really struggled to score the year before, made him attractive to us.”
The careers of Warren and Downey, and the impact Kennedy had on them, wasn’t lost on Millinghaus. He decommitted from St. Bonaventure and signed on despite interest from Miami (Fla.), Wake Forest, Georgia and Cincinnati.
“A.K., he told me he had a bunch of smaller players and stuff, and he told me that coming here was going to be an opportunity for me to show my talent,” Millinghaus said. “That was a very big influence for me. I saw where he took their game, and I want my career to be on that level, too.”
He’s not there yet. He averaged 5.3 points, 1.8 assists and 1.4 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game last year. And he’s still splitting time at point guard with junior Jarvis Summers, though they’ll be on the floor together some. Summers is likely to see increased minutes off the ball, especially in the games Henderson misses.
But he got a taste in March. He’s thirsty for more.
“I’m trying to improve on being a leader and willing my team to win,” Millinghaus said.
Missouri was a start.